How to write a prize-winning play

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Originally written for IdeasTap.

Opportunities for budding playwrights are now more plentiful than ever, but how do you make your play stand out from the rest? Catherine Love shares playwriting tips from the winner and runners-up of last year’s Papatango New Writing Competition…

Get inspired

You’ve decided that you’re going to write a play – what now? Dawn King, who won thePapatango New Writing Competition with her play Foxfinder, admits that “once you’ve learnt your craft, having an idea is the hardest bit”. But the worst thing you can do is just stare at a blank Word document waiting for that light bulb moment.

“The main thing is that if you’re trying to have an idea it’s actually quite hard to have one,” says King, “so if I’m trying to have an idea I tend to do something else.” Try taking a break and getting out of the house; you’re far more likely to find inspiration away from the computer screen.

Let your characters drive the plot 

Plenty of advice has been written about plotting plays, but it is best to let the plot be guided by your own characters and ideas rather than by a set of textbook rules. Competition runner-up Matt Morrison prefers to think of a play’s structure “in terms of patterns and permutations”. He explains that one of the best ways to move the plot forward is to make your characters interact with one another in different combinations and scenarios. “A small amount of plotting will actually get you quite a long way.”

Nail the dialogue 

It may sound obvious, but one of the central elements of any play is the words coming out of the characters’ mouths. Well-written dialogue should drive the action and develop your protagonists. Although writing dialogue involves much more than just replicating the way that people speak, Dawn suggests that listening to real speech is a good start. Matt, meanwhile, stresses that making your characters say what’s on their mind is the biggest mistake you can make, adding that “language is a force field to stop characters getting to the truth.”

Know your characters

Your characters are the heart of your play and you should know them better than your bosom buddies. Papatango runner-up Carol Vine believes that it’s “fundamental as a playwright to know what the character wants”. She goes on to explain that the desires of your characters are what keep your play moving forward: “as long as somebody wants something, then the play [and] the characters are active”. Matt agrees that the motivations and decisions of the characters are key. “The most important thing is to show characters making choices,” he advises. “You say, here’s a character, here’s their dilemma – which way are they going to jump?”

Keep trying 

Carol entered her play Rigor Mortis into several different playwriting competitionsbefore it impressed the Papatango judges and emphasises that the judging process is inevitably subjective. “Competitions can be a wonderful platform if you win,” she says, “but if you don’t, given that there are hundreds and sometimes thousands of submissions, it certainly doesn’t mean your play is awful. You have to have guts and champion your own work, as there will be times when no one else will.”

Finally, don’t be discouraged if your play fails to win the first prize or competition you enter. As proved by Carol’s experience, persistence pays off. And most importantly, in the words of competition winner Dawn King, “be tenacious”.

Photo: Garry Lake

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